This blog was written by Himanshu Raj, Officer, Sustainable Mobility at ICLEI World Secretariat.

From Paris to Buenos Aires to Melbourne, many cities around the world are following a trendy planning model of 15-minute cities emphasizing walkability and accessibility. While the idea of a 15-minute city is on its way to adoption by many cities, an unprecedented boom has been seen in grocery delivery companies promising 10 to 15-minute delivery. Over the last year, there has been a rapid rise of 15-minute grocery delivery services launched across cities in the United States and Europe, with the COVID-19 as an enabling factor. With low or no delivery fees, these companies are changing the way we shop, providing convenience for customers.

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Both models aim to bring goods and services closer to home, but while a 15-minute city focuses on improving street life and supporting community engagement, the effect of the 15-minute delivery is still too early to tell whether the concept enhances or hinders community life. As the popularity of the new service rises, city officials will have to decide whether the service is a nuance or complements the 15-minute city concept.

15-minute cities in practice

The idea of “15-minute city” is not new, and many cities (Barcelona, Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Milan, Paris and Portland) around the world have been using its elements to create people-centered urban development models. Recently, the concept has been adopted by a number of cities around the world but was made famous by the city of Paris where mayor Anne Hidalgo made it part of her re-election campaign. The trending concept is quite the opposite of traditional urban planning models that segregate different land uses, especially residential from businesses, retail, industry and leisure. Traditional planning models often encouraged more car traffic in-order to connect activities like home-work, home-business, home-leisure. On the contrary, “the 15-minute city” concept integrates various land uses into a cohesive people-centered development trying to get away from private cars and promoting walking, cycling and use of public transport.

Elements of the “15-minute city” concept can be seen in Barcelona’s Superilla (Superblock) model. The city has been transforming its streets with the aim of reclaiming public spaces for citizens from grey infrastructure (road space or car parkings). It aims to acquire 1 million square meter of public space in the next two years and dedicate it to sustainable mobility and green streets. By 2030, 1 out of 3 streets in Barcelona will be green streets for pedestrians, green areas and sustainable mobility. Currently, 10% of all trips are done by bike, which will increase in the future as the city aims to increase bike lanes from 120 km to 272 km (by 2023).

Barcelona Superblocks, Source: Mayor EU

The mobility vision of Buenos Aires is no different than Barcelona and the city started working on the “human scale city” (ciudad a escala humana) model in 2009 with three clear goals; prioritize public transportation, promote active mobility and improve connectivity. The pandemic gave a push to their vision as the city saw an increase in walking (20%) and cycling (10%) share even though overall trips were down by 53% in 2020 (4.1 million trips) compared to 2019 (8.8 million trips). City has implemented more than twenty green streets and aims to have 300+ km cycle lanes by 2023 as a step closer to the 15-minute city model. Through its green street transformation, the city has renewed close to 25,000 m2 of public spaces, added 10,000 m2 of new green spaces and 10,000 m2 of new pedestrian spaces.

15-minute deliveries in practice

Backed by big investors and smart algorithms, fast and ultra fast grocery delivery companies are taking over the traditional and retail markets around the world. These companies take up spaces as mini warehouses in different parts of the city, the operation of warehouses is often conflicting with the nature of the street. Nobody knows what goes inside, as often the warehouse has darkened windows or is covered with advertisements to hide operations and are known as “dark stores”. Big trucks come to refill dark stores and multiple deliveries go out depending on the neighborhood, blocking or hampering the street activities like walking and cycling. Number of such dark stores have skyrocketed, in Paris alone there are close to 130 stores, Amsterdam has 31,  Rotterdam has 13. Such dark stores have already become a nuisance and many cities have started looking into regulating them; Dutch cities have already put a one year ban for any new dark stores.

Grocery delivery mini warehouse, Source: REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw

In Barcelona, the online shopping in the city has increased from 23 million in 2018 to 33 million deliveries in 2020 and 23% of modal share is attributed to delivery vehicles. Freight vehicles contribute to 31% of PM10 and 34% of NOx emissions. In response to the increased delivery, the city plans to promote the distribution and collection spaces outside the public thoroughfare by encouraging the use of collection points and distribution centers, promote low/zero emission delivery fleets and integrated planning of logistics in landuse on a metropolitan scale. At the moment there is only one company ‘Glovo’, that is into the fast delivery market but the City has a clear plan to regulate such ultra-fast delivery services by limiting dark stores in inner city areas.

In Buenos Aires, there are no fast or ultra delivery companies in the city but food delivery companies are growing faster and the city has mandated delivery companies to ensure safety of workers and provide safety gears. City wishes to invest more into creating sustainable neighborhoods and believe there won’t be any ultra fast delivery companies starting their operations in near future.

The way forward

The co-benefits of the “15-minute city” concept will extend to health, climate change, and equity aspects of mobility. The concept is centered around the core principle of sustainable mobility of reducing the need of travel. Local governments around the world should look into integrating the elements of this concept in their mobility plans. While there are some cons for “15-minute deliveries” there are pros as well; it is creating jobs for the non-skilled labor force. These delivery companies should ensure safe working conditions, not follow the gig-worker model and exploit the potential of the technology layer for efficient and sustainable deliveries. Instead of a complete ban on opening new dark stores, local governments should use this as an opportunity to update building bye-laws and new policies. Professor Laetita Dablanc (Director of Research at University Gustave Eiffel, Paris) talks about coexistence, the ultra fast grocery delivery companies are targeting a niche population and will co-exist with traditional retail shopping. She argues that the city needs to put regulations around the design of dark stores rather than banning them. An example of GoPuff (fast delivery company) in Soho, NYC that has a little walk-in store together with their warehouse is aesthetically appealing rather than a covered window. There is a need for a transparent dialogue amongst stakeholders and city administrations should look into regulating delivery companies in more pragmatic ways, as it also contributes to job creation in the city. It should not cause any competition in already expensive real estate markets and design of dark stores should speak to the vicinity without taking away the charm of the street where they are located.

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In this context, ICLEI’s sustainable mobility team organized a panel discussion at AUTONOMY Paris 2022 event to discuss the pros and cons of both the concept of the 15-minute cities and 15-minute delivery services – if and how they can co-exist in the ultra-fast, technology-oriented modern society. Panel was joined by;

Janet Sanz – Vice Mayor of Barcelona

Dino Buzzi – Director of Planning, Use and Evaluation of mobility of Buenos Aires

Laetitia Dablanc – Director of Research at University Gustave Eiffel

Himanshu Raj –Officer, Sustainable Mobiity, ICLEI WS